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Can We Vote 'Realitainment' Off Our Television Island?

There's no line left between news and entertainment.

April 25, 2002|JAMES P. PINKERTON

How long will it be before some enterprising TV network comes up with a "reality show" based on passenger train crashes? Or a show based on being an observer in the war-torn West Bank? Reality shows may not be the white-hot phenomenon they were two years ago during the CBS "Survivor" craze, but today a dozen such programs continue to affect--or infect--both news and entertainment.

To be sure, before there were reality shows, there was reality itself. The dozen or so "realitainment" shows on television today have their genesis in urban "action news," made possible by helicopters and portable cameras in the 1970s.

The Fox program "Cops," which premiered in 1989, was a nationwide distillation of such violent fare, although one always gets the sense that the participants in the show--including the suspects--are hamming it up for the camera.

Notions of reality were pushed further in 1992 by MTV's "Real World," which quickly put soap operas to shame; real people did real things on camera, from fighting to loving to dying of AIDS.

"Combat Missions" on the USA Network stars real-deal personnel from SWAT and SEAL teams, plus Green Beret and Delta Force members, staging violent sorties at an undisclosed desert camp.

It's all for show, but the line between news and entertainment is not just being crossed, it's sometimes being cross-wired.

ABC television recently cut a deal with the Pentagon to have its cameras tag along with soldiers, on the stipulation that the film footage be treated as edited entertainment, not news.

And VH1, veering far from its music-video roots, will soon be offering "Military Diaries."

Closer to home, why watch someone's fictional story when you can watch someone's real life?

That's the premise behind ABC's "The Bachelor," the new king of Monday night, featuring a man dating and choosing his way through a bevy of women.

And for more family-oriented viewers, there's "The Osbournes" on MTV. The home life of the former Black Sabbath rocker and bat-head biter-offer Ozzy Osbourne, now doddering and drooling his way through prematurely drug-induced dotage, has become one of the greatest successes in cable history; a record 6.3 million people tuned in last week.

Are such lives not real enough? There's always genuine death: HBO's "America Undercover" series recently offered an episode titled "Autopsy."

Does any of this realitainment have larger social significance? You bet it does, for two reasons.

First, the old wisdom that bad news breeds escapism has been eclipsed by a new rule: People want to see the world head-on, without escaping at all.

News, especially cable news, puts less premium on production values and more emphasis on rolling out instantaneous imagery, ranging from a Vatican press conference to a high-speed car chase. And so the stand-up report is being supplanted by the hand-held raw feed.

Earlier this month, CNN's Jason Bellini, who in the past has partnered with MTV to produce war coverage from Afghanistan, was there, Handycam transmitting, when a suicide bomber blew up in Jerusalem.

Some might decry this unedited journalism, but if American networks hold back, other networks, such as the Arab Al Jazeera, will charge ahead, showing its audience what it wishes. Are you ready for all Osama all the time?

The second realitainment trend is that people don't just want to consume news; they want to create it too.

The Independent Media Center, which claims outposts on six continents, will Webcast just about anything of a radical nature on its site.

As broadband technology improves, IMC is likely to progress from a virtual to an actual network.

And if that's too structured for you, there are thousands--soon, millions--of Webcams up and running, showing everything from pandas to porn.

These two trends--ever-grittier nonescapism and unmediated do-it-yourselfism--are likely to continue the escalation of produced sensationalism. How else will the ratings-hungry eat? Indeed, one can squint at various shows--pro-wrestling, pay-per-view "Ultimate Fighting," celebrity boxing matches--and see some sort of deadly gladiatorial combat coming into view. Will it be news or entertainment?

Maybe that distinction will be moot, because if someone gets killed, however entertainingly, that's news.


James P. Pinkerton writes a column for Newsday in New York. E-mail:

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